There are few actors that carry the same cultural resonance, both in the mainstream and independent circuit, as Adam Driver. From dominating the cosmic skies of a galaxy far, far away in Disney’s Star Wars sequel trilogy, to embodying the life of an everyday poet in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Driver is an actor of great physical stature and emotional gravity. Without such a personable, poignant performance from him in Leos Carax’s Annette, the film could’ve easily become an exercise in vanity from the artistic elite. In actuality, it’s not far from this reality.
Written by Ron and Russell Mael, better known as the eclectic Sparks brothers, just like their often fantastical lyrics, Annette exists in its own ethereal realm, somewhere between the land of surreal dreams and the very real psychology of human angst. Such works effortlessly for the music of Sparks, when strange riffs and lyrics make only a fleeting visit, though for Carax’s latest film that clocks in at over two hours, the whimsical nature wears a little thin.
Harking back to the Oscar-winning success of Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables, almost all of the Sparks brothers’ script is sung in chorus and detached vocals, creating a symphony of song that dances the line between irritating and impressive. Adam Driver leads the line as Henry McHenry, an alternative comedian who performs in a shabby green dressing gown whilst expressing his inner turmoil in wild song. He is joined at the hip by the famous actress Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), with both individuals proclaiming “we love each other so much” in one of the film’s recurring songs.
It all leads to the glorious birth of the titular child, Annette, who stumbles into their life as a marionette and totters around the house in rather creepy, bumbling movements. Though this isn’t her only secret as Henry and Ann’s newborn child is a heavenly performer with seemingly gravity-defying abilities. Her unique performative skills make for some incredible cinematic sequences of a truly eerie quality, and it is within these moments that the vision of the Sparks brothers comes to fruition.
The intention to weave an odyssey of love through a satire of celebrity and show business is only partially realised, with the first half of the film working on standby in preparation for the spectacle of Annette’s birth. Such makes for a largely overindulgent opening hour in which there is little to cling ahold to aside from Adam Driver’s frenetic performance. When every person – and seemingly every prop- is capable of breaking out into nonsensical song, it’s difficult to really attach yourself to any real morsel of meaning.
For Leos Carax and Sparks, it is their intention for the audience to read between the lines and extract their own meaning from what is really a scrapbook of ideas randomly pasted together. Riffing off the performance of everyday contemporary living as well as the farce of celebrity culture, the line between personal love and public adoration is drawn, and Annette creates a fantasia of rhythm that rides off the beats of modern life. Nodding toward the #MeToo movement and the scandalous case of Harvey Weinstein, the Sparks brothers place the film industry on scales of judgement and come out with an ethereal assessment that has to be witnessed to be truly appreciated.
Like many of Sparks’ 24 studio albums, however, Annette feels more like a noble phantasmagorical experiment rather than a complete cinematic success. What hasn’t faltered is the duo’s feverish approach to pure, unadulterated creativity.